RAYYAN, Qatar — Their landmasses are separated by the high seas, and their statures in football — er, soccer — are divided by a similar great distance. It’s England’s national pastime – apart from royal watching, of course – and a laid-back retreat for most Americans.
Some Premier League clubs trace their history to the 19th century; MLS dates back to 1996. The English invented the modern game; the Americans tinkered with the rules before adopting them.
And yet football ties between the countries grew stronger, intrinsically linked by exposure to the English game in the United States, the desire of many American players to chart careers in England and a greater respect in England for growth of American football.
With that dynamic at work comes a World Cup collision on Friday in Bayt, Qatar, between a full-throttle England contender and a childish American side looking to join the giant killer clan at this unpredictable tournament.
Brimming with talent, the Three Lions have their sights set on their first World Championship since 1966. Learning and evolving, the United States have the modest aim of qualifying for the knockout stage after failing to qualify for the tournament four years ago.
They have faced each other in the World Cup only twice before, and the Americans have yet to lose (a surprise in 1950 in Brazil and a draw in 2010 in South Africa). A win or draw would not only fuel America’s immediate cause, but spur greater ambitions to become a formidable soccer nation in the men’s game. (The women’s program arrived a long time ago.)
“It’s obviously a huge opportunity to accelerate the impact we can have,” captain Tyler Adams said. “These are the games where it’s a special time and under high pressure to enter the field against some of these guys. . . . It means a lot to the team because we’ve been trying to push this thing forward for three years and we’re moving in the right direction.
The links between the programs start with the coaches, Gregg Berhalter and England’s Gareth Southgate, who have become good friends over the years. Both took over teams in need of direction, Berhalter after the 2018 qualifying fiasco and Southgate after lackluster performances at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship.
After their teams were put together in the World Cup draw, they didn’t have much contact.
“I sent it on WhatsApp but didn’t see the blue checkmark” showing Southgate read the message, Berhalter joked Thursday. “We kind of took a break. We will resume our relationship the day after tomorrow.
Said Southgate: “I have enjoyed my interactions with Greg over the past few years. I learned a lot from him and it was really interesting to see the team progress under his leadership.
Almost half of the 26 American players have links with England. Sons of American fathers, defenders Antonee Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers were born and raised in England. New York-born midfielder Yunus Musah lived there from age 9 to 16, came through the academy ranks at Arsenal and played for England’s national youth teams.
Losing Musah stung England. “Obviously I took one of ours, which we weren’t too happy about,” Southgate said. “Fair play.”
Musah, 19, said: “I’m not sure how I’m going to feel [Friday]. It’s a special game, of course, because I played for both teams.
Carter-Vickers, 24, said: “My family half wants us to win and half wants England to win.”
Striker Gio Reyna, 20, was born in Sunderland, England, when his father, Claudio, the former United States captain, was in the middle of his European career.
Adams, goalkeeper Matt Turner, striker Brenden Aaronson, defender Tim Ream and forwards Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic are employed by English clubs. Striker Jordan Morris spent time on loan at Welsh side Swansea City in the English second-tier Championship and midfielder Luca de la Torre launched his career with London-based Fulham.
Berhalter, a former defender, played one season for Crystal Palace in London.
The Premier League is “the game I grew up watching and experienced it firsthand” playing for Arsenal, Turner said. “It was an eye-opening experience to see him from both sides.”
Three of Turner’s Arsenal teammates have been selected in England’s World Cup squad: goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, defender Ben White and striker Bukayo Saka. “Friends off the pitch,” Turner said, “and then when you step onto the pitch, it’s total focus for 90 minutes.”
As a young player, Adams idolized Arsenal star Thierry Henry – he became Henry’s teammate with the New York Red Bulls – and he was drawn to the Premier League. This summer, Adams joined Leeds United from RB Leipzig in Germany. His trainer, Jesse Marsch, is American, as is his teammate Aaronson.
“I remember telling my mum at a young age that I wanted to play in England,” said Adams, 23. “There is something special about the Premier League – it always has been and I think there always will be.”
Berhalter, Turner and Adams cited the popularity of the Premier League in the United States, thanks to extensive coverage by NBC Sports.
“Waking up to watch the Premier League and everyone in America seems to have a team they support,” Berhalter said. “It’s an incredible league. We are really proud that our players play in this league.
Southgate said: “We know a lot of [U.S.] players in our league, and we know the quality they have and the athleticism they have.
With so many Americans playing in England, perhaps the dread of facing the Three Lions is eased. All members of the England squad, with the exception of Germany-based midfielder Jude Billingham, are employed by a Premier League club.
“I wouldn’t say there are a lot of things that intimidate me other than spiders,” Adams said with a laugh at a news conference at the Qatar National Convention Center, one floor below a huge spider sculpture.
“So it’s good for me to have the opportunity to play against all these great players, but we also want to show that what we are capable of and that American football is growing and developing in the right way.”
The English also came to the United States. Wayne Rooney played for DC United in 2018 and 2019 and is now the club’s manager.
When asked at the end of that season if he had any divided loyalties, the England national team’s all-time top scorer replied: “No. I am English. I want England to win, of course.
But he joked that if the Three Lions stumble, “I have to call it football for the whole of the next [MLS] season.”
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